On Thursday, NASA announced its next medium-class mission to explore the solar system-a lander named Dragonfly that wants to fly like a drone over the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Titan has a fascinating environment, with a hydrocarbon atmosphere much thicker than Earth's atmosphere.
NASA scientists were decoding this Titan explorer and another mission that would have flown to a named 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet had just visited by Europe's Rosetta spacecraft, which returned a sample of cometary material to Earth.
Of the two missions, the Titan explorer-with an unprecedented design that would fly the size of a larger Mars rover over the moon-carried the higher risk. But, helped a century after the Apollo lunar landings, NASA decided to go boldly. "A great nation does great things," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.
In 2004, NASA's Cassini probe into the Saturn system and descended through Titan's thick atmosphere. It has survived about 90 minutes on the surface, but it has returned tantalizing information about the complexity of a cold.
"[Dragonfly] has so much potential for fundamental science, said Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physical Laboratory who is the principal investigator for the mission. Scientists believe the complex organic chemistry in the atmosphere of Titan and on its surface "Titan is just a perfect chemical laboratory to understand pre-biotic chemistry," Turtle said.
Cost capped at $ 1 billion
As a New Frontiers mission at NASA's portfolio, Dragonfly wants to be cost-capped at $ 1 billion. It is the fourth mission in this medium classification, following the New Horizons Pluto flyby mission, the Juno spacecraft at Jupiter, and the OSIRIS-REx mission exploring the Bennu asteroid. Titanium in 2034.
Once there, Dragonfly wants to land in the equatorial region of the moon, which is covered by large sand dunes. A radioisotope thermoelectric generator wants to recharge a battery, which in turn will power Dragonfly's rotorcraft flight system for a couple across the surface of Titan during a period of 2.5 years. Over that time, Dragonfly wants to cover about 180km, a sizable chunk of a moon that is 5,149km in diameter-about 1.5 times the size of Earth's Moon.
While flying on distant moon may sound ambitious, Turtle said it is by far the most expedient way to get around Titan. The moon's atmosphere is about four times thicker than Earth's atmosphere, and the gravity is one-seventh that of our planet.
Before the announcement, scientists were excited about the scientific potential of a Titan mission but worried that NASA might spit it due to the high risk. However, after the announcement, NASA's chief of science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said the agency worked with Turtle and her team to reduce the number of serious risks and enhance the mission's chance of success.
"We want to do something bold and take measured risks, "said Zurbuchen, who has added the weight of Apollo's 50th anniversary to his mind.
I've been asked what it means to be a part of an agency that has this great history, "he said. One thing it seems to mean is the moonlighting of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Listing image by Johns Hopkins APL